Category Archives: Gardener’s Notebook


Having just finished a book about plant and animal adaptation, or non-adaptation, to climate change, I have been thinking about the ability certain plant species to survive, even thrive, when the environment is radically changed. Specifically, when we move plants from high to low.

Many of the Penstemons that we grow are naturally higher-elevation plants, and many of them simply refuse to grow reliably down here in the valley. But a few, like Lovely Penstemon (Penstmon venustus), have proven to be adaptable and long-lived in local landscapes.

But why? Why has Lovely Penstemon evolved to be able to withstand environmental variability or disruption? This, to me, is one of the intriguing mysteries of gardening. Each time I discover one of Idaho’s beautiful mountain plants and find that it succeeds in our (arguably hostile) low-elevation environment—that is a moment of revelation. And even hope for the future!

March 2, 2023

Sagebrush Love

A recent article by local birder and conservationist Terry Rich inspires me to speak out (again) for Sagebrush. As you may know, there has been a stunning and tragic decline in North American songbird populations over the last 50 years. These declines are analyzed by habitat type. The data shows that birds of the Western Forests have not declined seriously, but ‘Aridland’ bird populations have plummeted, by about 25%. These are the birds of our dominant native landscape, the Sagebrush Steppe.

If you are new to the Intermountain West, the Sagebrush desert may strike you as desolate, uninhabited. But a healthy Sagebrush ecosystem supports a huge variety of fauna and flora: badgers and pronghorn, lizards and toads, grasses and flowers, a wealth of insects. And birds—hawks, sparrows, flycatchers and meadowlarks—many songbirds plus the iconic Greater Sage-Grouse.

It’s easy to love the beautiful flowering plants of our gardens. Harder, perhaps, to love Sagebrush—until you see it as the anchor, the rock on which so many other species rely. So, here’s to Sagebrush and a healthy New Year!


January 6, 2023

Creeping Oregon Grape

Creeping Oregon Grape, Mahonia repens, is one of our most versatile and useful native plants for landscaping. Its evergreen leaves settle into deep reddish-purple in winter, and when spring comes it erupts with a flush of cheerful yellow flowers.
Mahonia repens is a quite common in the upper foothills. There it grows mostly in the forest, tolerating deep shade–but the plants are small and don’t flower a lot. Oddly, this native develops into a much larger, showier specimen down here in the valley, happy in sun or shade.
Because of its compact proportions (2′ x 2′ or so) Mahonia repens has many uses in a landscape. You may be familiar with a much larger Oregon Grape, Mahonia aquafolium, which is fairly common in yards and along the greenbelt. The big one can sometimes be a bit overwhelming. Both Mahonias are admirably drought tolerant.
As winter approaches, my admiration for tough, evergreen plants skyrockets!

November 26, 2022

Fall Bloom

Regular nursery open hours are due to end in just two days, yet there are still so many beautiful plants in bloom! In this strange year–cold, with snow in May, then heat without a break all summer–the flowering time of many plants was delayed. Several plants are just now beginning to flower. But of course, no two years or seasons are alike or predictable. The magic is in growing plants that are flexible and resilient, plants that can put up with whatever our erratic and changing climate throws at them.

September 28, 2022


It’s Datura season at my house. In the mid to late summer this amazing plant begins producing giant trumpet-like flowers, sometimes a dozen or more on a single plant. Datura is famously hallucinogenic and poisonous but also incredibly alluring for honeybees.The flowers open just as dusk is falling and honeybees–who usually don’t stay out real late–get so excited that they try to squeeze their way in before the flower has actually opened up. It is fun to stand around and watch the flowers open, as you can see the petals twist and move in real time. The flowers last only one night and remain open for a while the next morning. Then they wilt and are replaced by a new crop of flowers the following evening.

September 9, 2022

Drought tolerance

I took this photo this morning of the oldest/upper part of our demonstration garden. Most of these plants have been here for 12 to 15 years. Last year, the drip watering system sprung a leak, which I didn’t manage to repair until sometime in July. The plants looked fine, and so the repair job took a back seat. In the end, the area got water only three times all summer.

Based on that experience, this year I postponed watering until early July and then watered once more in early August. Despite the persistent heat, the plants still mostly look fine. Frankly, I have been kind of amazed!

The lesson here seems to be that many of our plants can develop extreme heat and drought tolerance once they are well established.

Establishment is the key—and that takes time. As the plants in a low-water landscape grow, they put a lot of energy into their root systems—which can be massive. That is why many perennials appear to grow so slowly in the first year or two. Watering plants long and deep but infrequently encourages roots to go deep and find the water.

Sometimes a broken pipe or other accident can reveal new truths. This example demonstrates how extreme drought tolerance can develop over of many years. Patience!

August 9, 2022

Seed Harvest

As summer kicks into full gear, we begin hustling to gather seed at Draggin’ Wing Nursery. There are nearly 90 species on my seed collection list this year, most of which are available from plants now growing in the demonstration gardens.
The seed set on Curleaf Mountain Mahogany, above, is particularly spectacular this year. Probably thanks to those amazing spring rains. When a tree is loaded with seed like this, the whole plant can look like a giant ball of fuzz.
Attached to each seed is a long, furry tail. As the seed ripens, the tail begins to corkscrew. And when the seed eventually falls, the corkscrew can help to spin it right into the ground.
Curleaf Mountain Mahogany is a widespread native tree/shrub occurring in upland areas throughout southern Idaho as well as the West in general. One of its great assets as a landscape plant is that the leaves stay green all winter. It is an unusual creature: an evergreen tree that is not a pine, fir or spruce.

July 7, 2022

Queen of the Foothills

Arrowleaf Balsamroot, Balsamorhiza saggitatta, is my nominee for the title ‘Queen of the Foothills’. Its big, happy flowers are one of the first treats of the wildflower season. The blooms arise from a massive taproot that can extend 6’ into the ground.  This huge root, plus stems and seeds, were all used for food and medicine by many native peoples.
Many, if not most, native plants thrive only in restricted elevation ranges. Not Balsamroot! Given full sun and relatively dry soil, this plant grows cheerfully from the lowest to the highest elevations in our foothills. So for flower lovers, the Balsamroot season stretches out as we follow the movement of spring up the mountain.
The downside of Balsamroot is that it refuses to grow for any length of time in a pot. Apparently, its gigantic taproot will not tolerate such a restriction. So—no Balsamroot at the nursery! You can collect seed in about a month, direct sow it into the ground and wait patiently for nature to take its course.

June 2, 2022

Rethinking Catmint

Over the years I continue to revise my thinking about what makes a great landscape plant. One of the first plants that I worked with when starting the nursery was ordinary Catmint, Nepeta mussinii. As much as I liked it, I realized that it seeded out freely and could be a troublesome invader. So I switched to a sterile type of Catmint, one that definitely would not overrun a garden.

However, as I observed ordinary Catmint spreading itself throughout my huge front yard, I noticed how beautifully long-blooming it is and how much it is visited by bees and other pollinators. The sterile form, on the other hand, didn’t bloom as long or enthusiastically and did not offer a lot for pollinators. I learned that when we choose plants for certain qualities (like good behavior), we may lose other benefits (like production of pollen and nectar).

Catmint is not appropriate for every landscape, but in the right setting it is a superstar!

May 20, 2022


If you have been hiking in the foothills or along the greenbelt recently, you have probably noticed lots of these little cages protecting tiny plants. They are part of the ongoing, city-led work to restore areas of native habitat.  As folks become aware that improving habitat is crucial to the long-term health of insects, fish and birds, volunteers have jumped in to help. Leading the effort to organize and recruit volunteers is our local chapter of the Audubon Society. It is exciting to see how a love of birds is translating naturally into a love of the native plants that support birds. To learn about a variety of projects underway and perhaps to become a volunteer, check out this information on the Audubon website:

April 29, 2022

Spring Wildflowers

As spring is rapidly advancing, are you eager to check out some of the early blooming wildflowers in the Boise foothills? If so, take a look at Treasures of the Boise Front, an marvelously informative website created by botanist Barbara Ertter. You can find detailed descriptions of many foothills hikes, along with pictures and descriptions of native and non-native plants found along those hikes. One to look for right now is the endearing Sagebrush Buttercup.

March 28, 2022

Sonoran Desert

Of the three ‘hot’ deserts in the western US (Sonoran, Mohave and Chihuhuan), the Sonoran is considered the most botanically diverse. Never having been there before, I recently drove south to see it

Ancient giant saguaros, pockmarked with the old holes of nesting birds, are almost other-worldly.  Agaves, from small to gigantic, form graceful, fat rosettes–many with dead  flowering stalks still towering above them. Sprawling prickly pears and fuzzy-looking chollas catch the sun.  Tall thin, spiny ocotillos wave in the breeze.  An amazing variety of trees– palo verde, ironwood, mesquite and others thrive in the hot lowlands, while various oaks, junipers, sycamore, manzanita and much, much more grow at higher elevations.

All in all, it is an amazing landscape, full of plants of amazing form and variety. I had hoped to see a few more spring flowers, but the winter has been dry and there was little color. Yet the beauty of the Sonoran Desert (like any great landscape) does not depend on colorful flowers alone.

March 15, 2022

Yuccas in Winter

Yuccas, like these in the Yucca corner of our demo gardens, provide a sharp accent of green in the gray of winter. This planting contains six different Yucca species, all native to the Western US. These plants are slow-growing, and none are old enough yet to produce their characteristic spike of white flowers.
Maybe you have noticed lots of rather floppy-looking dark green Yuccas around town.  Oddly, these common Boise yuccas (
Yucca filamentosa, or ‘Adam’s Needle’) somehow arrived here from the Eastern U.S., where they are native. This is a shame, as they are a poor examples of an overwhelmingly beautiful group of landscape plants.
Western Yuccas are upright, stately and elegant. Although their native ranges are mostly south of Idaho, many of them are cold hardy enough for our climate. I used to think Yuccas were yucky—but not any more!

February 24, 2022

Winterfat Puzzle

On a nice autumn day Winterfat, a native desert shrub, catches the slanting sun and is truly a thing of beauty. The Winterfat in this photo is full of seed. In the wild such plants provide valuable forage–‘fat’–for critters, thus the name.
The puzzle is: Why in my garden is this particular Winterfat so fuzzy and full of seed and other examples of Winterfat are not fuzzy at all?
I made a brief excursion on the internet to pose the question: Is Winter monoecious (male and female flowers on the same plant) or dioecious (male and female flowers on separate plants).
If some Winterfat plants in my garden are males and others (like this one) are females, that would explain why they look so different right now.
Here are some answers to the puzzle:
Winterfat plants
 “are dioecious”
 “are monoecious . . .and occasionally they are dioecious.”
are “monoecious or dioecious”.
Wow! Who knew that plants could be one or the other, either/or? This is the kind of little surprise that make amateur botany such an adventure.

October 22, 2021

Strict Buckwheat

Driving up to Bogus Basin recently, I noticed the beautiful clumps of Strict Buckwheat scattered along the roadside. Strict Buckwheat always blooms this time of year in the lower foothills, but I was particularly impressed by its ability to put on a dazzling show despite the blazing heat of the past summer. Strict Buckwheat is one of my favorites in the native garden, spreading gently by seed and staking claim to any open dry area.
Note: A friend recently forwarded a NY Times article entitled “Why You Should Do Your Spring Planting in the Fall”. The article reaffirmed much of my gardening experience. Fall planting provides new transplants a long period of R&R before facing the heat and drought of summer. The vigor of a fall-planted hardy perennial far surpasses that of one planted in the spring. At the nursery, where we begin production in early spring, many of our perennials are not ready to plant out until fall. Leftovers from fall sales are what we have to offer in early April.

September 10, 2021

Insect Apolcalypse

The longer that I work with plants, the more I learn to love and appreciate insects of all kinds. This time of year, insect activity is one of the best things about the garden. The story of insects is a story of connections: plants feed insects, insects pollinate plants, insects become food for birds, bats, fish, frogs and more.
Watching these beautiful and industrious bees, it is easy to forget that the big picture for insects is truly grim. Dave Goulson, entomologist and author of two entertaining books about bees (A Sting in the Tale and A Buzz in the Meadow) recently wrote about what he calls the looming “Insect Apocalypse”. Researchers are seeing a decline in the overall abundance of insects worldwide on the order of 75% over the past 50 years. The data is alarming, depressing and numbing, but we can all do something.
Goulson asks us to “Imagine green cities filled with trees, vegetable gardens, ponds and wild flowers squeezed into every available space – in our gardens, city parks, allotments, cemeteries, on road verges, railway cuttings and roundabouts – and all free from pesticides.”
It’s a vision well worth working on.
Note: The nursery will be open for fall planting starting Wednesday, September 1. Hours are: Wednesday-Friday 12-5; Saturday 10-5. Loads of plants will be available!

August 26, 2021

Genetic Variability in Native Plants

The two plants shown above are versions of Lacy Buckwheat (Eriogonum corymbosum), a beautiful, large Utah native. Both will cover themselves with small white flowers in the fall, but one will bloom earlier than the other. These two plants offer a great example of something I see all the time: genetic variability in native plants. Unlike highly cultivated species—which tend to be quite uniform –native plants can be highly variable in appearance, even differing in leaf color as in our two examples. This genetic variability allows native plants to adapt and survive the challenges that Mother Nature throws at them year after year.

And for me, it is also one of the challenges and joys of gardening with natives.

July 29, 2021

Syringa Bloom Time

If you get a chance, stick your nose in a handful of syringa blossoms and inhale. Our beautiful state flower is in full bloom right now, and I think this is a banner year.
The plant was named (botanically) after Meriwether Lewis–Philadelphus lewisii. But it is commonly called after two other plants: oranges–as in ‘Mock Orange’ and lilacs–as in ‘syringa’, which is the genus for lilacs. Ah, the confusion of common names.
Syringa is quite widespread along various trails in the foothills, but you are not likely to really notice it until it is blooming.
Last summer, I was fortunate enough to experience a raft trip down the Middle Fork of the Salmon River. It was late June, and syringa was in full bloom, lining the river banks for mile after mile. It was breathtaking. I have rarely had a more visceral sense of the generosity and beauty of nature: a great choice for our state flower.

June 8, 2021

Early Buckwheat

Buckwheat season has begun! As many of you know, I am a huge fan of Buckwheats, a large genus (Eriogonum) of annual and perennial flowering plants native to N. America, mainly the arid Western US. This early blooming buckwheat is Eriogonum heracloides, called variously Creamy, Wyeth, Whorled or Parsnipflower Buckwheat.  I use ‘Whorled Buckwheat’, as the whorl of leaves halfway up the flowering stalk is a good identifier.
Whorled Buckwheat lives in the Boise Foothills, along with Sulfur Buckwheat. You can see its cheery bloom in a few weeks as you drive up Bogus Basin Road.
The blooming of Whorled Buckwheat is a sure sign that we are settling into the truly warm weather of spring—and it might be a good time to plant your tomatoes!
*Erion is Greek for woolly and gonum means knees, so you can call these plants the “Woolly Knees”!

May 10, 2021


The charming groundcover above, “Dwarf Wormwood”, is a part of the large genus Artemisa. With hundreds of species worldwide, Artemisias are called, variably, Wormwood, Mugwort or Sagebrush.
In Europe, the genus was named after a famous Greek queen and healer, Artemisia of Halicarnassus, as well as the Greek goddess Artemis. Artemisia was used traditionally in the medicines of Europe and Asia and has recently been tested for use in the fight against Covid. Artemisias have also played a role in flavoring food (Tarragon) and drink (Absinthe).
Upon colonizing the American West, Europeans were reminded of another Old World medicinal herb, Sage (Salvia), and gave the widespread local Artemisa its confusing name ‘Sagebrush’. They viewed the Sagebrush ‘ocean’  as endless and saw little utility in it.
We are are coming late to the appreciation of Sagebrush as the anchor of our high desert landscape and the key species for the preservation of much desert life, including the endangered Sage Grouse.


May 10, 2021

Hackberry Harvest

Harvest time in the Hackberry!
Netleaf Hackberries are a striking presence in the rock outcroppings of our lower foothills, and they produce a crop of small, sweet berries each year. The trees hang onto much of that fruit through winter, then leaf out in the late spring. Although the berries are partially dried, the birds are now having a feast.
Yesterday as I walked over to the nursery, I saw robins, waxwings and others swarming this tree.
So why plant natives? Hackberries are a great example of how native species can support local wildlife.

April 1, 2021

‘Donkey Tail’ Spurge

I took this photo yesterday of Myrtle Spurge, aka Donkey Tail Spurge (Euphorbia myrsinites), spreading aggressively in the Boise Foothills. This attractive attractive pest was once considered a great choice for xeric landscaping, but its drought-tolerance and ease of propagation has allowed it to jump into the wild. A native of Eurasia, it can easily overwhelm native competitors and is now listed as a noxious weed in Colorado, Oregon and some Utah counties. It is probably too late to prevent it from taking over large areas of our Foothills, but we should still avoid it in our landscapes. Always wear gloves when yanking it out–the stems contain a nasty, milky sap.

March 21, 2021

The Structural Beauty of Sagebrush

Years ago, when the kids were small, we started replacing the traditional Christmas tree with a sagebrush. Going out into the desert to cut one was a family adventure and the result was always somehow miraculous. The trees looked windswept and architectural, beautiful in the way that asymmetrical Japanese-style flower arranging is beautiful.
These days when I am out hiking I am often struck by the unpredictable and graceful forms of many sagebrush. While sagebrush is not a good fit for many landscape projects, I think it is too often overlooked as design feature, especially in native and xeric projects. Next time you look at sagebrush in the wild, see if you find the structural beauty in its gnarly, off-kilter form.

Years ago, when the kids were small, we started replacing the traditional Christmas tree with a sagebrush. Going out into the desert to cut one was a family adventure and the result was always somehow miraculous. The trees looked windswept and architectural, beautiful in the way that asymmetrical Japanese-style flower arranging is beautiful.
These days when I am out hiking I am often struck by the unpredictable and graceful forms of many sagebrush. While sagebrush is not a good fit for many landscape projects, I think it is too often overlooked as design feature, especially in native and xeric projects. Next time you look at sagebrush in the wild, see if you find the structural beauty in its gnarly, off-kilter form.

February 11, 2021

Rosemary in Winter

Rosemary is one of my favorite water-thrifty landscape plants. It is beautiful, especially in winter, and feeds honeybees in summer. The hitch is that Rosemary, even the most cold-hardy varieties (e.g. ‘Arp’) are only marginally hardy here in Boise. The solution: find (if you can) the right micro-climate like this one–a warm, sunny, south-facing brick wall. The brick is not absolutely necessary, but it helps.
P.S. Note the purple carpet in front. That is Woolly Thyme in winter, a nice contrast.


January 26, 2021

Jacob’s Garden

I love it when customers send me photos of their beautiful landscapes. This one really knocked my socks off! Jacob filled his smallish front yard with a huge variety of plants, and his approach has paid off–low water but full of vibrant color. Photo courtesy of Jacob Durtschi.

June 24, 2018

June 23, 2018



The Paintbrush is blooming on Mores Mountain! It’s just one of the most striking sights awaiting hikers. But as much as people would love to have Paintbrush in their home gardens, I have not yet figured out how to grow these beauties in a pot–or even in the ground. Fun facts: 1) the red you see are bracts (modified leaves), which hide the tiny flowers 2) most Paintbrushes are semi-parasitic, deriving some of their nutrients and water from the roots of a host plant, a strategy that allows them to inhabit drier spots.There are about 250 species of Paintbrush in N. America and over 20 in Idaho. Photo courtesy of Kathleen Moyer.

June 15, 2018
June 16, 2018